If there is one scene that explains the enduring appeal of 'Touchez Pas Au Grisbi' (basically 'don't touch the loot'), it is this: Max (Jean Gabin at his most Mitchum-esque), an aging hood who has pulled off a massive airport robbery and plans to retire quietly to the country, sits in his apartment one night with his old friend, the somewhat lunk-headed Riton (Rene Dary). Riton's girlfriend (Jeanne Moreau) has left him for a young gangster, Angelo (Lino Ventura in a sensational debut), whom she has informed of the job, and who is trying every means possible to snatch the gold.
So this scene is of crucial generic urgency, with rippling consequences for the development of the plot. What Becker films is entirely without urgency or consequence. In complete silence, he follows the middle-aged men as they enter the apartment, sit down, prepare a light supper, eat and talk; Max then gets up, takes out mattresses and pillows for his friend's bed like a good chambermaid, undresses in the bathroom, brushes his teeth, Riton likewise; then they both go to bed. This beautifully understated, intimate and domestic scene does not replace the crime genre, but co-exists in paralell with it, showing what is at stake.
This split defines the movie, from the conflict between older and younger characters (and men and women); between Max's affable respectability and his latent sadism; between bright interiors of oppressive theatrical artifice and dark outdoor locations; between static scenes where nothing much happens and jolting bursts of brutal violence and action. You even find it in the brilliant closing car chase, as thrilling location work intercuts with Hitchcock-style back projection. This disparity between the real and ideal gives the film its melancholic, philosophical heart, and gives the climax an over-powering force, set in the quiet countryside to which Max wished to retire, and which can only offer backdrop to a bloodbath.
Critics have found in 'Grisbi', a gangster film about loyalty, treachery, collaboration, surveillance, torture, clandestine activities, secret hideouts, rural slaughter and military hardware, some kind of allegory for the Nazi Occupation of France a decade previously. This explanation is attractive because the period had been tacitly removed from the public sphere. But there is nothing so portentously grand in Becker's characteristically light handling. Max and the gangsters may well have been in the Resistance - Melville has said that underworld methods and contacts were vital to both Resistance and Gestapo - as their knowledge of torture techniques and gun-smuggling suggests. But the Resistance were absolutely crucial to their time and place, whereas Max and his friends are resolutely out of time, relics from the past who can only play at assimilation - the recurring motif of Max's harmonica theme suggests a man literally stuck in a groove. Max himself exists in a paralell world to the realities of a 1950s France nowhere to be seen on screen, a revenant infernally condemned to repeat mistakes and watch old friends die.